People often muse on a future controlled by machines, but that is already well in motion here in the Bay Area, where hotels are employing robot butlers, Google and Tesla are putting driverless vehicles on the road, and apps that live every aspect of your life for you continue to proliferate. The rush to put an end to human contact is at a fever pitch around these parts, where a monied tech elite has the deep pockets to support increasingly absurd services.
Right on trend, this week marks the debut of Eatsa, a quick-service quinoa bowl "unit" (as one owner called it) billing itself as San Francisco's premiere "automated cafe."
I attended a media preview lunch at Eatsa last week to test out the concept before the doors officially opened. Pushing a button to summon an Uber ride to my door, I wondered how good automated food might be.
I realized it doesn't really matter, because as California inches towards a $15 per hour minimum wage, that's the direction we're headed in, starting with a people-free fast food world. Hell, that's already happening with one McDonald's location in SF (the one that hasn't been declared a public nuisance by the City Attorney for drug activity), which has instituted a kiosk for ordering customizable burgers under their "Create Your Taste" program.
Fortunately, I found out about three minutes after ordering my Eatsa bowl through a tablet equipped with a credit card reader (no cash accepted here) that automated food is quite tasty! And plentiful! My burrito bowl—loaded with grilled corn, quinoa, pinto beans, and asada-style slices of portabello mushroom—weighed about a pound and a half and cost $6.95. I couldn't eat it all in one sitting.
I fetched my bowl from what Eatsa calls a "cubby," which looks like a microwave oven with a computer screen on the front. You go to the bank of cubbies and look for your name on the screen. When the order is almost up, the screen goes black, opens up a cute, cartoony peephole window, and then turns green with a check mark. You're instructed to double-tap the screen and the door opens up and out, with your compostable bowl of goodness waiting inside.
The whole place is much more reminiscent of an Apple store than a fast food franchise. The few employees on the floor who are there to assist, called "concierges," kind of have that Genius vibe. It feels sterile.
Everything went almost eerily well at Eatsa until the owners called time for a Q&A session and didn't want to answer any questions about actual human beings hiding behind the cubbies.
"Can we see the kitchen?" someone asked, making them visibly uncomfortable. Denied.
"How does it work back there?" inquired another, getting an answer that went off on a tangent and had little to do with the question.
This unnecessary evasiveness just made my whole brain go red as I imagined the sinister scenarios that could be going on back in that kitchen. What did they want to hide?
Maybe Oompa Loompas carried each grain one by one to fill the bowl and, like Willy Wonka's factory, trap doors in the floor await to banish the less-productive little ones to tea with Veruca Salt forever.
Or were there workers back there being whipped by robot overlords to dole the bowls in record time? There would have to be an awful lot of sound insulation to muffle their screams.
Rousing me from what had the potential to build into an increasingly more apocalyptic nightmare/panic attack, a third journalist asked, "Can you tell us how many people work back there, at least?"
Finally, we were told that five or six people might typically work a shift, but if we went back there today we'd see a lot more people because the media lunch was doubling as a training session.
To quell any odd feelings about using tablets instead of cashiers, Eatsa's argument is that it's more personal this way. The customer has more options, which will be remembered in the system when a credit card is used for the second time. They'll also be given recommendations based on dietary preferences or restrictions.
Look, not every restaurant has to have a visible, open kitchen, but are we excited to lose actual human interaction in order to eat more for the same rate? Many would probably say yes, if it tastes this good at this price.
Eatsa is currently building another unit in Los Angeles—and tomorrow, the world.